Strength for the Journey: “No Respect” – Numbers 20

Rodney_Dangerfield_1It was the comedian Rodney Dangerfield that coined the phrase: “I don’t get no respect!” He was born Jacob Rodney Cohen, November 22, 1921 and died in California on October 5, 2004. He developed hundreds of monologues on the theme of being disrespected. Early in the 1960’s, with a divorce at his back, debts mounting, and no opportunities to move forward in show business, Rodney figured out that his problem was that he didn’t have a persona on stage that people could identify with – one that would distinguish him from similar comics of the time. He began to develop a character for whom nothing goes right – with the chief cause a lack of respect for him. Brought on as a last minute replacement on the Ed Sullivan show, his fortunes turned in a few months. By the 1980s he had a number of film roles, including Easy Money, Caddyshack, and Back to School. He is remembered for famous one liners like:

• I get no respect. I told my psychiatrist that everyone hates me. He said I was being ridiculous – everyone hasn’t met me yet.

• I get no respect. My psychiatrist told me I was crazy and I said I want a second opinion. He said okay, you’re ugly too.

• It must be true that I am ugly… I have never gotten any respect. When I was born I was so ugly the doctor slapped my mother… and countless others…

I mention that comedian, because he drilled in his monologue a complaint that God had long ago with His own chosen leaders of His people – and one He may have with us – God gets little respect! “What?” you reply. “Don’t we build church buildings in His honor, sing praises to His name, and spend hours listening to messages from His Word?” Perhaps we do, but that isn’t the sign of respect and honor God truly wants. He isn’t in this to be the center of the newest hymnal, nor to have more buildings built in His honor. The Creator of the Grand Canyon doesn’t need US to figure out how to put some rocks together and make something beautiful in His honor.

Here is the truth: God doesn’t measure our reverence for Him by the number of dollars we give, the hours of sermons to which we give attentive ear, nor the care with which we practice our ministry work for Him. God measures reverence by the care we give to following His Word as He gave it. When we ignore His Word, or when we relax our ears from carefully listening and in turn ease away from bringing our hands to strict obedience to what He has commanded – we show Him supreme disrespect.

Key Principle: When we don’t follow God’s Word carefully, we show that we don’t truly hold Him in the high place He belongs in our life. He is not MORE to us if His Word is not MORE to us!

The story in our lesson is NOT about the children of Israel, but about two GOOD men and their SIMPLE sin. It is about the LEADERS that no longer took special care to listen to God’s Word carefully, but relaxed their obedience – and thereby showed a lack of real respect for God.

How did Moses and Aaron lose the sense of AWE of God’s MAJESTY? How did God’s Word become something that was casual and able to be take lightly?

The answer is found in the fact that they gave greater regard to their circumstances than to the Holy Words of the Lord above. Note the context, because that has much to do with the problem. Moses and Aaron lived with:

The Problem (20:1-5)

Disregard: For one thing – it came at a time when Moses and Aaron had gone a long way with God.

Numbers 20:1 Then the sons of Israel, the whole congregation, came to the wilderness of Zin in the first month;

A careful reading of Numbers 20-21 shows this section to detail the last stage of the journey of Israel – from Kadesh around Mount Seir to the heights of Pisgah, near the Jordan, and the various incidents connected with that journey (compare Numbers 33:37-41). This is near the end of Moses’ life – and thirty-eight years into the trip. The opening comment mentions a “first month” – which must be compared to Numbers 33:37-41 (cp. Num 20:28).

In the end, we can see that thirty-seven years has passed, and Moses and Aaron have been at it a LONG TIME. More than thirty years has passed since Numbers 13 and the spies incident.

• People have lived their whole lives after the departure from Egypt.
• Many younger men know little of God’s miracles by experience – they know by Word alone.
• Moses has been in charge as long as they have been alive – and people that have contended for leadership have been put down – time and again.

The biggest issue is not the OUTSIDE WORLD, but what is going on INSIDE the leaders. They have gotten used to the title – and they have become complacent about the PERSON they serve. Familiarity brings contempt.

Here is a warning: When you have a long history with God, when you have walked a long path, and you accept that God need not throw lightning bolts to be firmly believed by you – you do not require signs and demonstrations of His might any longer. He has done the marvelous in front of you – and you believe His Word without the fireworks. At the same time, we must learn that is becomes necessary in that time to work not to lose the AWE of the Creator and His deep relationship with us. Like any relationship, it is easy to “settle in” and eventually lose the driving passions of youth –that is not unusual. Yet, in losing the passion and zeal that comes with stirring miracles and Divine displays, we should at the same time be gaining a depth of love and understanding of God’s greater purposes – but that is not always the case. In our loss of passion, we can also lose AWE – a sense of the sheer MAJESTY of our Creator and His love for us.

Moses and Aaron became USED to a relationship with God, and a ministry for God. They grew into thinking of themselves as PARTNERS and not servants. That seeded a subtle disregard in their heart. They no longer saw their intense NEED of God for every decision, every hour. As they “owned” their part as leaders – God lost the dedication that marked the days of their desperation years before. DISREGARD was the one problem –and it had very clear four very symptoms:

Discomfort: The people were now facing the “hard” desert at Zin:

Numbers 20:1 Then the sons of Israel, the whole congregation, came to the wilderness of Zin in the first month;

Things grew particularly tough! None of the desert experience was EASY in our modern sense of the term. Time went by SLOWLY in the camp. Days were intensely hot, and nights were often uncomfortably cold. Much of their day was taken up by dealing with the needs of survival. The weather and MOLD were as much an enemy as a neighboring tribe. The leaders were aging – they had been at it for an entire generation – and Moses recognized that he wasn’t getting any younger. It is quite possible that Moses felt the time drawing near to his own end (perhaps Miriam and Aaron were showing signs of their demise) and began moving the people toward the closer position. The problem is, that was a more uncomfortable and difficult place.

Central Sinai is not what the pictures often show. Southern Sinai is the rocky and mountainous part. The softer beds and sands are found in the center of the peninsula, where Wadi el-Arish offers sandy stretches on either side of the wadi (dry river) bed. Pitching a tent in el-Arish is MUCH easier than in Zin – where the rock IS the surface of the ground. Driving spikes for a tent in Zin is nearly impossible… it is a hard, hot and hostile environment – even by wilderness standards.

Disillusionment: The loss of Miriam:

Numbers 20:1b “and the people stayed at Kadesh. Now Miriam died there and was buried there.

Personal pain stung the leader. Moses lost his companion, friend and sister. His link to his family was growing thinner – and that made it an especially painful loss. The tenderness of a sister was lost – and the memories of a lifetime of camping trips couldn’t make up for the sense of deep loss.

Beyond that pain was the realization that the team was aging and dying out. Moses was attending more funerals and doctor appointments than anything else in his schedule. Life seemed to be more about maintenance than excitement. What started as powerful flashes of God’s power now seemed to be dying out in a whimper at the grave side.

Desperation: severe shortage of water:

Numbers 20:2 There was no water for the congregation…”

God’s care seemed lagging. Again the issue of water that plagued Moses’ entire journey reduced the loyalty of his people to a hostile and complaining lot. Who could blame them? They were thirsty, and the God of all provision didn’t seem to be watching. With the personal loss of Miriam, Moses may have felt the lack of water more than in the past. Death had left its sting, and Moses was nursing a hurt in the face of non-stop complaints.

Disputes: the people came against the leadership.

Numbers 20:2b “…and they assembled themselves against Moses and Aaron. 3 The people thus contended with Moses and spoke, saying, “If only we had perished when our brothers perished before the LORD! 4 “Why then have you brought the LORD’S assembly into this wilderness, for us and our beasts to die here? 5 “Why have you made us come up from Egypt, to bring us in to this wretched place? It is not a place of grain or figs or vines or pomegranates, nor is there water to drink.”

Listen to their complaints.

• First, we should have died trying to enter the land like our brothers who snubbed God’s direction and charged in! (20:3).

• Second, why did YOU bring us here to THIS wasteland? (20:4).

• Third, why did you MAKE US leave Egypt (a place of abundance) for this wasted and dry place? (20:5)

Discord was rising. The people were hurt, and as so often is the case – “Hurt people hurt people!” They lashed out against Moses and Aaron, because they couldn’t slap God in the face at the moment of their intense thirst. The older among Israel’s children KNEW Moses didn’t cause the trip or the lack they now faced – but there were many present who had not seen God’s hand in their generation. Yesterday’s powerful display became old news – and the current generation could not live off of the passing generation’s lessons learned in the blowing of the wind across the water, or the fire falling as a guardian before the face of Pharaoh. Without a new display, the miracles of God would swiftly become tales of mass hysteria. They needed a fresh move of God if they were to be stilled in the face of their startling lack.

Are we really so different? When God led a handful of people safely through storms of the Atlantic Ocean, they fell on the beach and knelt on the sands of the New World. They came, according to their own words, to both escape persecution of their religious faith and to bring the Gospel to the red man. Most of what we know about the Pilgrim expedition, and their original “Thanksgiving” of 1621 comes from original accounts of the young colony’s leaders, Governor William Bradford and Master Edward Winslow – from the quills in their own hand. They tell a tale of marvelous provision of a personal God, His Divine intervention at every turn of the journey. That tale has been reduced to a godless version for our contemporary school children that still get a day of Thanksgiving off of school – but don’t have a God to go with it – at least not one endorsed in our educational system. We did not begin where we are – and neither did the people in the Sinai so long ago…they needed a fresh fire from Heaven – as often so do we!

Note also that the people brought up the ONE TIME when people simply threw the leadership of Moses overboard and went off to defeat the Canaanites. The scene was particularly painful to Moses – though for much of the crowd is was as distant as Richard Nixon and Watergate – an old scandal only addressed by grey-headed pundits.

There it was – a time of particular toughness, when the leader was in pain, the needs were abundant and discord was growing in the ranks… Moses was looking for a way to get out of leadership and find a retirement home to check into – he was empty inside and surrounded by an angry and thirsty mob. His companion was an old man with a stick – and things didn’t look like they were going particularly well.

The Reaction (20:6-13)

First, there was the “appearance” of worship (20:6-8).

Take a moment and look at the next paragraph – because what it reveals may surprise you. Moses REACTED in frustration rather than responded in worship. He ACTED OUT rather than withdrawing to God for a time of healing. Initially, that is not what it looks like. Watch Moses and Aaron go into the doorway and drop on their faces… and God showed up with more instruction. That looks like worship, doesn’t it?

Numbers 20:6 Then Moses and Aaron came in from the presence of the assembly to the doorway of the tent of meeting and fell on their faces. Then the glory of the LORD appeared to them; 7 and the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 8 “Take the rod; and you and your brother Aaron assemble the congregation and speak to the rock before their eyes, that it may yield its water. You shall thus bring forth water for them out of the rock and let the congregation and their beasts drink.

Come on, can’t you hear the keyboard playing in the background, the lights low in an intense moment before God? They approached, they acknowledged God’s holiness and their broken condition, and God’s manifest presence appeared before them. His Word came. It was not uncertain or garbled – it was specific and measurable. God told both men to assemble the people, speak to the rock cliff before them, and have on the ready ways to collect a flow of water. God made clear HOW they were to do what they were about to do. Don’t skip the details here – they are at the heart of the story. God’s work, done God’s way was about to supply God’s people. All looks right – but that is because we cannot see the heart of the leaders. We see only the appearance of worship – not the place where it MUST OCCUR – in the human heart. Surrender was not present, only the physical signs of it. Knees were bent, but hearts were not yielded – and that is show without substance. The God who hung the stars is never impressed with a man’s ability to put on a show.

Let me say it with unmistakable clarity – the service is not where we can see if one truly worshipped. It is seen in the life AFTER the worship time. It is seen in what the person who fell, cried, sang and held their hand high with their BIC lighter raised and lit before God – did AFTER they left the room. One can have an EXPERIENCE of the soul – the part of me that is emotionally affirmed – but not have a real move of God within. That can only be tested by my obedience to God’s command and call.

Second, there was “selective” obedience (20:9-13)

Again, I am choosing my words carefully to reflect the issue that God made clear in His response. Look at what Moses did in the face of God’s revelation:

Numbers 20:9 “So Moses took the rod from before the LORD, just as He had commanded him; 10 and Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly before the rock. And he said to them, “Listen now, you rebels; shall we bring forth water for you out of this rock?” 11 Then Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod; and water came forth abundantly, and the congregation and their beasts drank.

Moses stepped out between the rock cliff and the assembly. He had in his hand the rod of God’s revealed truth. God popped buds from a dead stick years before to show a sign of endorsement of the Aaronic priesthood. Now the stick that was once a symbol of LIFE and ENDORSEMENT would become a tool for disobedience and sinful display in the hands of a hardened veteran leader who was not listening carefully to God’s Word anymore.

Listen to the tenor of Moses’ speech before he slammed the rock. He called the people REBELS. That was true – but not terribly understanding in light of the current troubles. The people were THIRSTY, and the canteens were empty. Yes, they said some harsh things to Moses, and their hearts were not right. In his stung state, feeling the loss of Miriam, perhaps he took things more personally. At the same time, Moses had many times in the past pleaded with God to save them – and now he seems too disgusted and too tired to care if they perished or not. Leadership wore him down. The faces of his friends had disappeared, and their children had – one by one – replaced them in the camp. He was surrounded by strangers – old and exhausted.

Moses didn’t speak to the ROCK – he spoke to the people. He didn’t speak to the CLIFF – he smacked it with the holy symbol of God’s endorsement. He didn’t do it ONCE – he did it TWICE. He got the desired result – water flowed… but he did it with all the stiffness of his younger self – striking down the Egyptian in the city long before. His will prevailed over God’s will – and that made clear that his time with God just before was not one of surrender – true worship – but one of a perfunctory visit to the Almighty in the face of a camp crisis. It was his moment on the capitol steps, singing with Congressman and Senators “God Bless America” when the pain of the nation gripped them after 9/11. The “worship” was verbal not “cardial” – as the heart was not moved beyond emotional stirring into the realm of the spirit – where surrender to God actually occurs. Worship only occurs when surrender occurs. There is no other form of true worship.

Why strike the rock? As we have seen on other occasions, the place where sedimentary rock and metamorphic rock (like granite) joins can become a place of water storage in the desert. Moses knew that. I have seen it, and watched a Bedouin guide get water by striking a rock in the desert. I have seen a wilderness camp instructor do the same thing in western Pennsylvania. Moses did what he KNEW, not what he was TOLD. He did the right thing the wrong way. He relied on his ability not God’s miraculous power. Only God could get the water by speech.

Finally, there was God’s Offense (20:12-13).

That’s right. God got offended. Listen to what the Most High said to His servant gone AWOL in heart:

Numbers 20:12 But the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you have not believed Me, to treat Me as holy in the sight of the sons of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them.” 13 Those [were] the waters of Meribah, because the sons of Israel contended with the LORD, and He proved Himself holy among them.

You didn’t BELIEVE Me. You didn’t TREAT ME AS HOLY right in front of My people…Now look at the END of verse 13. God PROVED Himself HOLY among His people by excluding the leaders from entering the Promised Land. The penalty is SO VERY BIG, that we have to spend a moment here and reckon the scene. God wasn’t impressed with the prayer time, or the bowing – if it did lead to LIFE CHOICES of obedience. Time in church won’t make God happy if the Word that you hear there doesn’t change your life choices. If the revealed truth of God is not followed – the sheer reverence we are to have for Him is not real. God knows that when we surrender, we walk according to His desires. When we do not – we walk according to our own plans. How can it be measured? The answer is found in the text. When we don’t heed the Word of God, we snub the claim of God to lead us – and we take the throne to ourselves – doing things the way WE THINK they should be done. In that moment of decision, we supremely disrespect God, and He is aware of the decision as well as the disrespect. It is not simply the decision God responded to, but the self-willed heart that produced it.

Let me ask a pointed question: We have engaged this lesson by choice. Are we willing to embrace the truth of it? Is it not plain that what God truly wants from His people is their careful observance of His Word, and then a vigilant obedience to that Word? If that is the case, then we will only be able to judge whether or not we worshiped in this hour by the care we take to perform what God has instructed in the coming hours. We are not working FOR His love – but rather working BECAUSE we recognize His Majesty, His uniqueness, His absolute and distinct right to have control of the daily life choices of His followers. Here is the real question: Is Jesus in charge of us? If not, there are some results we should anticipate…

Three Results (20:14-29)

Moses heard God’s punishment at Meribah – that neither he nor Aaron would see the Promised Land before death. There appears no reaction in the text. Moses kept going with the plan to get the people home. If he felt remorse and pain, it is not contained in this record. What IS contained in the three stories of results is that things didn’t go as Moses planned them.

Delay of the Progress (20:14-21)

Numbers 20:14 From Kadesh Moses then sent messengers to the king of Edom: “Thus your brother Israel has said, You know all the hardship that has befallen us; 15 that our fathers went down to Egypt, and we stayed in Egypt a long time, and the Egyptians treated us and our fathers badly. 16 But when we cried out to the LORD, He heard our voice and sent an angel and brought us out from Egypt; now behold, we are at Kadesh, a town on the edge of your territory. 17 Please let us pass through your land. We will not pass through field or through vineyard; we will not even drink water from a well. We will go along the king’s highway, not turning to the right or left, until we pass through your territory.'” 18 Edom, however, said to him, “You shall not pass through us, or I will come out with the sword against you.” 19 Again, the sons of Israel said to him, “We will go up by the highway, and if I and my livestock do drink any of your water, then I will pay its price. Let me only pass through on my feet, nothing [else].” 20 But he said, “You shall not pass through.” And Edom came out against him with a heavy force and with a strong hand. 21 Thus Edom refused to allow Israel to pass through his territory; so Israel turned away from him.

Moses sent for permission to pass through Edom, east of the Dead Sea, to allow the children of Israel to get OUT of Zin and move to a position perched over Canaan in the east. God’s plan was to have the land east of the Jordan partially settled with Israel, but Moses didn’t seem to know that.

Moses sent a messenger with a plea and a history of the people (20:14-17). Edom flatly refused (20:18). Moses responded with an offer of payment for passage (20:19), but this was summarily rejected as well (20:20) and this response was underscored by a sizeable force sent to end the discussion. Moses withdrew, and the people were back in the tough landscape of Zin, walking in REVERSE of their goal. Water or no, that cannot have been an easy march with that crowd!

Diversion of the Prize (20:22-24)

Numbers 20:22 Now when they set out from Kadesh, the sons of Israel, the whole congregation, came to Mount Hor. 23 Then the LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron at Mount Hor by the border of the land of Edom, saying, 24 “Aaron will be gathered to his people; for he shall not enter the land which I have given to the sons of Israel, because you rebelled against My command at the waters of Meribah.

Time passed. After a period back in Kadesh (far west of the Edomite mountains) Moses directed the people BACK to the edge of Edom. The Edomite army was back home at their farms by then, but Moses felt the urge to push again to their border. It may have felt like thrashing around to his followers. When they reached the border of Edom, God spoke again to Moses and Aaron. Mount Hor is situated “in the edge of the land of Edom” (Numbers 33:37). Since antiquity, writers like Josephus identified that mountain with one called today Jebel Nebi Harun (“Mountain of the Prophet Aaron” in Arabic), a twin-peaked mountain about 5000’ above sea level in the Edomite Mountains (east of the Arabah valley). Even today the summit has a shrine called the Tomb of Aaron, which may cover the grave of Aaron.

The bottom line is that uncertainty and meandering accompanied the delay that resulted from the leaders outward show of worship without inner surrender. The people withdrew, the people returned, the people didn’t know what would be next. Vision dies when worship fades. Direction becomes uncertain when obedience becomes lax. Many a movement, and many a ministry can testify to the pattern illustrated on the slopes of Mt. Hor long ago. The prize of the Promised Land was no longer the destination – for Aaron the destination was replaced with the grave. –as it has for so many movements and people who wouldn’t take God’s Word seriously. Surely Aaron would have died one day, but the commentary on his life that accompanied that death would likely NOT have been a penalty for disobedience as it was here.

Death of the Partner (20:25-29)

Meandering Moses now faced a third penalty – another sting from death:

Numbers 20:25 “Take Aaron and his son Eleazar and bring them up to Mount Hor; 26 and strip Aaron of his garments and put them on his son Eleazar. So Aaron will be gathered [to his people], and will die there.” 27 So Moses did just as the LORD had commanded, and they went up to Mount Hor in the sight of all the congregation. 28 After Moses had stripped Aaron of his garments and put them on his son Eleazar, Aaron died there on the mountain top. Then Moses and Eleazar came down from the mountain. 29 When all the congregation saw that Aaron had died, all the house of Israel wept for Aaron thirty days.

The camp was broken-hearted, and weeping could be heard from the tents round about. There was no good way to say goodbye to his brother – that is certain. Yet, the taste of death is all the more bitter when it comes on the back of hardness and disobedience. Moses and Aaron never crossed into the Promised Land in this life – they never reached their full potential following God. What more could they have done for Israel during the early days of the conquest? Would the period of the Judges have been so dark so quickly had they entered and established the people? We cannot know. What we CAN know is this: When we don’t follow God’s Word carefully, we show that we don’t truly hold Him in the high place He belongs in our life. He is not MORE to us if His Word is not MORE to us!

Gordon Dahl once said, “Most middle-class Americans tend to worship their work, work at their play, and play at their worship.” I simply argue that worship is a dangerous playground. When the writer H.G. Wells said, “Until a man has found God, he begins at no beginning and works to no end!” he set the stage properly. I was meant to WORSHIP – and that happens when I take His Words seriously, and then follow them carefully.